24 hours in the vehicle of the future

Reporter's Notebook: After driving the Better Place car, it will be difficult to go back to a gas-fueled vehicle.

Nadav in Better Place car_390 (photo credit: Nadav Shemer)
Nadav in Better Place car_390
(photo credit: Nadav Shemer)
I’m not sure who was more nervous: me, or Dotan, the Better Place employee who was about to lend me his brand new Renault Fluence ZE electric vehicle for the next 24 hours.
As an Australian who has not owned a car since moving here four years ago, sharing the right-hand side of the road with notoriously aggressive drivers was going to be enough of a challenge in itself. Moreover, I was clearly the only one of the dozen local journalists invited to test the vehicles who was not a rev-head (Aussie slang for car enthusiasts).
Dotan gave me a brief lecture on the vehicle before allowing me to head off on my own from my starting point in the Jerusalem hills. He introduced me to Oscar, the built-in computerized system that would help me find my way to the center of town, and explained how to maximize energy usage.
It took a while to get used to the absence of engine noise and to acclimatize instead to the gentle whirring – which sounded like the cabin of a passenger jet during takeoff – whenever I ascended. The other notable difference between the EV and a regular vehicle was its powerful acceleration, which allowed me to overtake my fellow motorists with ease. Because it has no gears, the vehicle reaches full maximum torque immediately, allowing it to go from 0 to 60 km/h in around five seconds.
The combination of silence and power relaxed me, and I noticed that some of my fellow motorists were getting a little agitated. In the not too-distant-future, I thought to myself, electric vehicle owners will develop a reputation for being the new Volvo or Prius drivers – they will drive at a pace that suits them and pose an obstacle to everyone else.
On the other hand, a number of motorists motioned for me to roll down my window when they pulled up next to me at the traffic light and noticed what I was driving. They asked questions like: “Is it really 100 percent electric?” “How long does it take to recharge?” and “Can you fit three baby seats in the back?” After charging the vehicle overnight at a Jerusalem hotel, I set off the next day for Better Place headquarters in Rosh Ha’ayin, this time with company employee Julie in the passenger seat. As was the case the previous day, an indirect route had been planned ahead of time, to give me and my fellow journalists several hours with our cars.
This second journey included a stop at a battery switching station in Modi’in. Assisted by instructions from Oscar and an attendant, I drove the vehicle onto the tracks and put it into neutral, just as one would do at an automatic carwash. I remained in the car as it was raised off the ground, had the used battery replaced by a fresh one, and then dropped back on the tracks.
By this stage, we were running late enough that Better Place founder Shai Agassi and his team – who were waiting for us at our final destination – may have suspected us of grand theft. Not that we would have gotten very far, given that our new battery would only have lasted another 150 or so kilometers.
I wouldn’t have said no had they offered me another 24 hours with the vehicle. While the NIS 122,900 price tag makes it prohibitively expensive for a humble Jerusalem Post reporter like myself, it will be difficult to go back to using a gas-fuelled car.